Davies Doubles down and ups the ante on Kawasaki
It’s very easy to jump to quick conclusions during the early stages of a season. Momentum swings from one bike to another and while some riders are ascending others are having an off weekend.
However, the third round of the Superbike World Championship has definitely shown that Chaz Davies and Ducati are the form package at the moment. The Welshman and the Italian bike claimed their first wins of 2016 in Aragon but having been in the thick of the fight for five wins in the opening six races their pace has not been in question.
What had been in question was top speed. While the Ducati MotoGP bike is a verified rocket the WorldSBK specification Panigale R has traditionally struggled to keep pace with the Kawasaki on straights. In the opening rounds we saw this when Davies was easily overtaken by Rea in both Australia and Thailand. Last weekend the tables were sensationally turned.
Armed with a new exhaust the Ducati was able to stay in the slipstream and overtake under braking into the final corners after the near 1km long back straight. It was a stunning turnaround in fortunes by the Italian manufacturer and if it can be repeated in upcoming rounds Davies will immediately be elevated to title favorite.
Much has been said and written about the exhaust but FIM technical delegates explained to us that the much vaunted part didn’t offer a significant increase in outright power. Rather they revealed that their testing on the Akrapovic built unit changed the character of the engine and altered the power curve. With a huge amount of usable power and torque Davies had a more refined package that gave him lots of confidence.
The double race winner said that the entry to the straight also helped with his approach carrying more rolling speed than some riders. This allowed him to carry more momentum onto the back straight and gain an initial advantage. While many riders backed off to first gear through the corner Davies was able to hold second while still keeping the bike inside its power band.
"It was a step, but not as big as everyone is making it out to be," said Chaz Davies. "I think that this weekend we were able to get the most from our bike but we've been quick all year. Aragon has always been a good track for us and it's always been a track that I've gone well at in the past. Thailand was a bad track for us last year and even though we struggled in race one this year we made a big step in the second race and were able to fight for the win despite having problems. That was really positive for us.
"Phillip Island was a good weekend for us and we got the bike to feel great by the end of that weekend. We just lacked a little bit of top end power there. I crashed in the second race there but I'll make no apologies about trying to win races. I had a bike that was good enough to win that day and while it was a shame to lose points it's a long season and after the crash I said I wasn't too bothered and I'm still not. Here in Aragon there was a lot of places I felt that I was strong."
Davies beat Tom Sykes after overtaking the Kawasaki rider under braking into the final corner, and the speed of the Ducati and the confidence of Davies has definitely left an impression on the 2013 Superbike World Champion.
"Ducati has made a massive step forward and you've got to give credit to those guys for the work that they've done," admitted Sykes. "They're the ones winning races this weekend and they're the ones working hard. We need to match that effort but credit to those guys. Chaz passed me with great speed in the first race, and the way that he was able to turn the bike and utilize the grip from the tires was incredible, so we need to take notice, but most importantly keep working hard."
In contrast to the close racing of the opening four contests of the season Davies walked into the distance from Jonathan Rea and Tom Sykes in both races. It was clinical execution from the former World Supersport champion and two of the most dominant performances imaginable.
Having started from the second row, Davies again struggled to get the most from the qualifying tire in Superpole, he eased his way through the pack in race one to the front and then ran from the field. Race two saw him overtake Rea on lap one and Sykes on lap three, before immediately clearing off and opening a gargantuan gap with ease, then calmly managing the outcome.
"The whole weekend has been great. It just seemed like we had the pace from the start of practice and could build on it all the time. From the first day we knew that the pace was there and in terms of having to make changes to the bike it was very smooth and most of what we changed worked well.
"We didn't need to turn the bike inside and out instead we could just work on getting small improvements. It was really positive for us. I was the person to catch from the start of the weekend really and to take two wins is great for everybody in the team.
"I'm looking forward to the next few rounds because Assen was strong for us last year. When you consider where we were in terms of our development to have been able to fight with Johnny for the wins gives me a lot of encouragement. We had some problems with the bike last year in Assen but they've been rectified now so I'm confident."
Damage limitation for Rea
Is it a case of back to the drawing board for Kawasaki or simply a poor weekend for the reigning champions?
It’s hard to imagine a situation where the winners of four of six races and leaders of both championships are in a rut, but the performance of Davies has certainly made that a distinct possibility. The dominance we saw from Rea last year has been consigned to the history books and the champion will have to dig deep to make sure his ducks are in a row for the next round.
Speaking prior to the weekend the Northern Irishman said “I’m enjoying being the champion, but last year counts for nothing. I know how hard it is to win a title and get to the top and I’m so motivated to stay there. I started training earlier this year than ever before and I’m training harder and working harder than ever because I know that everyone wants to beat me. It’s not going to be easy but I’m motivated and so are the team. We want to keep winning.”
Rea struggled in Aragon. A rare mistake in setup direction cost him the opening day of practice and a tire vibration robbed him of confidence and speed in the second race. His 36 point haul from Aragon should be lauded after such a difficult weekend and his sterling recovery in the opening contest was superb.
Having struggled until Superpole, Rea qualified on the second row, he was slow in the early laps and came under attack from behind. It looked for all and sundry that the champion would finish in the top five but struggle for the podium. As it was he regrouped and adapted to the bike and conditions and found a way to finish second.
"The result in race on definitely felt like a race win," said Rea. "We made changes to the setup before Superpole so at the start of the race I needed to learn the setup and understand it before I could push with it. We did well in race one but the gap to Chaz was too big this weekend. We can't just put it down to this being one of the tracks that he is good at but I managed to take two podiums so it's not such a bad weekend considering the problems that we've had."
For Chaz Davies the sight of Rea being on the podium on a weekend with such struggles illustrates how strong the reigning champion is right now.
"Everybody is going to have bad weekends through a season," said Davies. "Johnny was still able to salvage good points and two podiums and that's a pretty good weekend for most riders! Everybody will have their off weekends but I thought that he had made an improvement and I really expected that the three of us would be there together in Race 2. I managed to open a gap and keep the bike consistent in the second race and that was the difference."
It was a stunning performance and had the hallmarks of a champion. At the end of the season those 20 points could be more crucial than race win. It would have been easy to settle for fourth or fifth position but instead Rea rode superbly and rescued a strong finish. Damage limitation was the key in the second race too after a vibration sapped his confidence from quarter distance onwards.
In Parc Ferme afterwards Rea was clearly disappointed, but he is still the title leader and heads to Assen, where he had a double win last year, in a strong position.
Sykes looking to get aggressive and make a step forward
For the second round in a row Tom Sykes matched the points haul of his Kawasaki teammate and afterwards the Englishman was in buoyant mood.
"Overall this has been a solid weekend for us," said Sykes as he smiled post race in the Kawasaki garage. "I've got to be happy with two podiums but obviously the Ducati boys have done a incredible job this weekend. It's a shame that the gap to them was so big but except for that it's been a very positive weekend and we've done pretty much all that we could have done.
"We have gained a lot of really good information that will help us go forward and we'll sit down in the technical meeting and really examine that and try and use it to come back strong in Assen. We had good pace with the hard tire and I was really unsure which tire to use in the afternoon and went with what the majority of the field used. Whether that's a good decision or a bad decision I'm not sure but the only thing that I do know is that the gap to the front was too big and we've got to focus on reducing that."
Podiums in the last four races is encouraging for Sykes but of far greater importance has been his ability to make the tire last longer and be able to fight with other riders in the closing laps. In recent years that has been his Achilles heel but now it’s being clearer that the new ZX-10R Ninja is a bike that allows him fight in the closing stages.
"Tire life has been something that has been mentioned to me a lot over the last couple of years, but I'm fully convinced that once we have everything right with the bike that tire life won't be an issue and we'll be able to fight. In Thailand and in both races here we've been able to fight with Jonathan until the end of the races. So that's not a big concern for me at the moment. I think that when we improve the balance of the ZX-10R tire life will be even less of an issue for me.
"It's a whole different ball game compared to last year with the tires. With the rules and regulations it was almost stock racing because of the tires, but this year we've seen much stronger and more consistent racing. You've got to looks at how the races are being won and also what Chaz has achieved this weekend. I think that this year there's a lot more competition from the other riders and manufacturers."
Sykes has a searing pace when he is on form. His Superpole record is second only to Troy Corser and while his riding style is unique and unconventional he finds a way to make it work. Last year the Kawasaki had a narrower operating window for that style and Rea exploited this to open a huge title lead early. This year it’s clear that the bike is much more suitable for Sykes and his confidence is returning to the level of his title winning campaigns.
Sykes feels that when he can get more aggressive on the bike it will help him unlock more speed. Having felt that he had ridden conservatively at times over the last year he is now looking to turn up the wick and get more from himself.
"I know that I need to improve in some areas and I really want to unleash my potential and ride with a bit more aggression. I feel that things are going a bit too smoothly in terms of my riding style and we're giving away time to the competition as a result so that's what I'm going to work on going forward."
With the top three riders in the championship all showing how competitive they can be and all having stood on the top step of the podium Sykes is looking forward to the coming rounds.
"For us we now have to keep building on our results. Honestly Jonathan was very strong in Thailand and Aragon last year and there's no question that we've been much stronger in the first three rounds this year compared to 2015. The gap to the top of the championship isn't massive and we've now got to keep working but we've sen that there's a lot of pressure now and the front guys are all having to ride so hard to stay there. That makes mistake more likely from all of us and it means that you always have to be giving your best."
Say what you see: Michael Laverty gives his insight from trackside
Former MotoGP rider Michael Laverty was in Aragon to work as a rider spotter for Chaz Davies. With two years MotoGP experience and a wealth of British Superbike experience the Northern Irishman is well placed to offer an insight into the action at Aragon. The BSB title favourite assessed the current crop of WorldSBK stars for us.
"It's quite interesting on Friday because we knew that Chaz would be strong here given his past form at Aragon. Right from the first practice however he looked comfortable and faster than the other riders. I wouldn't say that he was head and shoulders above the others-this is a world championship after all-but he was definitely more comfortable than them and more confident. He had something extra compared to the rest and that's very impressive to see at this level.
"His corner entry speed was especially impressive and he could just hit his apexes very well. If anyone else tried to turn in at the same speed as Chaz they would generally just run through the corner but Chaz was able to pull it down every time.
"I'm not saying this because I was working with Chaz this weekend but he was genuinely impressive to watch. Of the other guys they were on a very even keel to be honest. When you watched race one you saw a lot of teammates battling each other with the Kawasaki's, Aprilia's and Honda's all with very similar pace to each other. Chaz though was comfortably faster than Giugliano and the other Ducati riders. He was very clearly the man here this weekend.
"This weekend my main focus was on watching Chaz and trying to help him improve and find extra speed but I spent time watching the other bikes too. When you're spotting you always try to say and explain what other bikes are doing too. It was interesting when I watched Josh Brookes because he was actually very fast in some areas. His mid-corner speed was impressively fast, but it looked like he wasn't quite getting off the corners as good as some of the other guys. You could see flashes of his speed here but when I was talking to him after the race he said he wasn't feeling at one with the bike yet. It's just not doing exactly what he wants and his feelings were very similar to when I jumped on the BMW last year when I went back to BSB.
"I'm sure that if Josh had come here on the bike he used last year he'd be competitive. I've no doubts about that actually because he was so smooth and confident on the Yamaha, but it almost looks like he is trying to make the BMW operate in the same way. You've got to ride the BMW in a specific way that it wants to be ridden, and that means that you have to go back and start from scratch with it.
"Added to that the team has to start from scratch too and learn the European tracks. SMR are a really good team and they'll get their head around everything but it does take time. It's tough for Josh though and you can sense the frustration from him.
"When I talked to Josh it was like having a conversation with myself from 12 months ago. He is having similar problems with it, and it took me almost a year to get the bike working as I wanted it to. We would make lots of changes-head stocks, linkages, everything-and I'd ride the bike and it would feel the same as before. Josh said that he's having the same issues. For me it just clicked at the end of the season, and once I had the throttle connection that I wanted it felt great but it did take time.
"They've got work to do but the BMW has a lot of potential and when you look at the championship the key thing is that the top bikes-the Kawasaki and the Ducati-are from the team's with the most effort and development behind their package. They're the most consistent week in and week out. Anyone looking to catch them will have to step it up and put in a lot of effort, but the other bikes can do it and that's what is wonderful about World Superbikes. But with that competitiveness it also makes things difficult for a rider because you do put in all that effort and work hard and when you finish 13th or 14th it's easy to lose some motivation and get frustrated.
"I've ridden the Yamaha R1 in the past and they always build a very good chassis and the bike always turns well. Last year when I raced against Josh on that bike you could see how much grip the bike has and how strong it is. With no electronics in BSB you really notice the chassis characteristics and how smooth the power is delivered. The R1 is a very good bike and it puts the power down so well.
"In WorldSBK you've got electronics at such a sophisticated level that you can imitate a lot of the character of other bikes, and try to make a bike deliver its power in a way similar to other bikes. The split throttles and traction control can help you develop extra grip compared when you don't have electronics so in WorldSBK the Yamaha loses some of the advantages of drivability compared to in BSB but it's still very strong.
"At this point they're only really scratching the surface of what's possibe with that bike because they're only three rounds into their return to the championship. The engine is strong and the chassis is strong so it'll be a very good package once they have more experience. With the qualifying tire they were both on the front row in Aragon and that's impressive but they now need to learn how to manage the tire life and get the most from the bike. The potential is clearly there to fight with the guys up front."
Fores finds a way to beat factory Ducati of Giugliano
Being beaten by your teammate is a situation that no rider ever wants to experience. A factory rider being beaten in both races by a customer rider on the same bike…that’s unthinkable. But that is what we saw with Davide Giugliano and Xavi Fores.
While Chaz Davies was romping to wins Giugliano was struggling and failing to fend off the attacks of Fores. The Italian struggled all weekend and was soundly beaten by Fores after a stunning performance by the Spaniard in both races. As a former CEV and IDM champion Fores speed is not in doubt but for the Barni rider to claim the scalp of the factory machine was a notable moment.
Giugliano was superb in Australia and claimed a podium finish. His first crash of the year occurred in Thailand and it has appeared to be a major setback for him. Team insiders have revealed that they are still concerned about Giugliano's health in his recovery from his frightening injuries of 2015-which included broken vertebrae-and that they are being patient with him.
The biggest stumbling block may not be physical but mental though. Giugliano has always been a confidence rider and when he had that confidence in Australia he was as fast as Davies but whereas his teammate finds a way to consistently get the most from the Ducati and maximize points Giugliano finds a way to disappoint.
Fores, who deputized for Giugliano last year, has put himself in the shop window for the factory ride in 2016 with this stunning performance. It’s easy to say that Barni have almost identical kit to the factory squad but as has been shown with teams in MotoGP and WorldSBK the machinery is only part of the battle.
Working with the factory engineers and the smartest minds of that manufacturer is what gives factory teams their biggest advantage. That's the reason that Valentino Rossi or Jorge Lorenzo are able to find setting solutions before the Tech3 riders in MotoGP and the same reason why the factory teams win in WorldSBK.
For Fores the weekend was hugely successful and showed again how competitive he can be. Another couple of scalps of Giugliano and he’ll be firmly in discussions for the second Ducati seat in 2017.
"I'm very happy to have had such a good weekend," said Fores. "In both races I had difficultly at the start and lost time but I could overtake other riders and get back to the front. During the early stages I pushed the tire a lot to close the gap to the riders in front of me but it didn't seem to give me any problems at the end of the race.
"I think that my pace was very good and I could even had fought for the podium but this is a great result for the team and they all deserve it. We need to keep working hard but we're working in the right direction."
Double front row but missed opportunity for Yamaha
Qualifying on the front row was a huge success for Yamaha in Aragon but in the race both riders struggled and finished in the lower reaches of the top ten.
While Alex Lowes ran off track in both races-after contact with Nicky Hayden in race one and after a missed gear in race two-his recovery was stunning. The Englishman stormed back through the pack on Sunday from 17th to overtake his teammate on the final lap.
This year we’ve seen Guintoli falter during races and be unable to find a way past riders in front of him. The flowing lines he uses on the Yamaha mean he can carry lots of corner speed but it also puts him in a position where he can’t exploit that speed when fighting with other riders. Lowes on the other hand is still aggressive with the bike and forces overtaking moves. This allowed him to fight back and beat his teammate.
"The aim for me was to work hard on worn tires and learn more about the bike," said Lowes. "I rode well and it's a shame to have lost time at the start of the races but I'm pleased with the weekend because I learned a lot. It's only our third race and we keep learning but in the second race, apart from the first four or five laps I was quite happy with the race.
"I couldn't ride the bike like I wanted in the early laps but once it started to do what I needed it to do I was a bit pissed off, and I ran off track because I was pushing hard to get back to the front. I knew that I had a bike capable of finishing in the top six and that left me a little bit frustrated and pushing too hard. It was my mistake but I've found that if I don't ride the exact same way in every lap I struggle to get back the gears correctly and I rushed a backshift a little bit and ran off at turn 12."
Lowes also did this on Saturday after losing over six seconds in the early laps. Having had dreadful luck so far in 2016 with tire and technical issues in three races Aragon once again showed Lowes’ potential.
It also illustrated the struggles of Guintoli. The Frenchman, a former WorldSBK champion, struggled for tire life in both races and having been initially competitive on Saturday he sunk like a stone in the second half of the race and on Sunday Lowes was able to repeat the trick.
"I can take a lot of confidence from this weekend because I made a step in a lot areas. We need to piece everything together and the biggest thing for us isn't to take massive chunks now it's just to learn and understand what worked well and improve in small areas. If we can piece together those small areas and have a smooth weekend in Assen we can have a good weekend.
"There's potential there, as shown by the front rows, but in the race with a full tank of fuel we still haven't gotten to the bottom of using the electronics and maintaining tire life just yet but it's all quite new to us still. I think that what we did in qualifying was very impressive but this was only the second time that I've used the qualifying tire because in testing I didn't use it because of my shoulder injury. I've always been a good qualifier so I think that with that tire it really lets us show the potential of the bike and it was really a lot of fun to ride.
"Right now to win or get a podium in WorldSBK you've got to have everything working well and get the most out of your package. So we need to keep learning lessons and keep making steps forward."
Yamaha brought a new engine to Aragon and has a series of upgrades planned that should make the bike more manageable in race trim but Aragon Lowes showed that at the moment it's Lowes that holds the upper hand within the team.
For Guintoli the future has to be about finding a way to match his one lap pace and lines with consistency during races and an ability to overtake. The Frenchman has shown that he has speed on the bike, illustrated by outqualifying Lowes once again, but he needs to unlock more consistency from the tire in the race to give him confidence to fight against other riders.
"The bike was good in Superpole with both the qualifier and the race tire," said Guintoli. "But in the race it's difficult for us to replicate that in race conditions with a full tank of fuel. We need to work on that and improve our race distance performance because the potential is definitely there.
"We have a lot of development planned in the coming races and in Assen we have some parts coming that are designed to help with that and we'll keep working on electronic strategies to try and help improve the tire life."
The YZR-R1 is a hugely potent package potentially but finding a way to unlock that potential is the key to when Yamaha will return to the winners circle in WorldSBK.
Light at the end of the tunnel for Brookes
It's been a difficult transition to WorldSBK for Josh Brookes but the reigning BSB champion now feels that there is light at the end of the tunnel.
The Australian came to Thailand having started to understand what he needed to do to get the most from his BMW S1000RR. The German bike has a very specific operating window where a rider needs to approach corners in a much more procedural manner compared to other bikes. The electronics govern so much with the BMW and with each corner programmed to be taken in an individual gear there is no room for improvisation.
If you approach a corner designated as a third gear corner the bike will expect to have a certain amount of power available to the rider at that given moment. Once the rider exits the corner he needs to use full throttle and leave the sophisticated electronics to control the wheel spin. In Thailand Brookes tried to ride around his problems and adapt his riding style. Sometimes this would have been by using more engine braking into corners by dropping down an extra gear or short shifting on the exit.
Having wondered why the bike would either have so little power on corner exit, when in a higher gear, or why it would viciously snap to the power to the rear and look to wheel stand the bike he asked the engineers why this happened. Having been told that he needed to be in specific gears for corners his mind was opened to the potential of the package. Going full throttle on corner exit however will take him more time to comprehend!
That is one area where Jordi Torres and Marcus Reiterberger, the Althea BMW riders, have a distinct advantage. Having ridden the Aprilia last year and using a similar style Torres had a very strong weekend in Aragon. Reiterberger, a double German Superbike champion, has lots of BMW experience and made the adaptation earlier in his career.
For Brookes the up and down performance of the Althea bikes is encouraging as it shows the bikes potential but also raises questions why they have not been consistent.
"It's interesting with the other BMW riders because from one round to another there's a different guy going fast," said Brookes. "In Thailand it was Reiterberger who was having a really strong race but I could fight with him this weekend and beat him in race two. This weekend Torres was the fastest and taking fifth place finishes. That's good because that shows the potential of the bike but it also raises questions why the performance is so up and down for the riders. I think that it's clear that I can get more out of the bike than I have so far."
Getting more from the bike will take time for Brookes and his Shaun Muir Racing squad. Having moved to WorldSBK from BSB there is plenty for both to learn and understand but Brookes finally felt progress in Aragon.
"I was feeling quite dejected after qualifying because I was hoping that after testing here and learning our lessons in Thailand that we would be able to have a good weekend. Nothing really clicked for me though and I was dejected but sometimes it's those really crap moments that something can change for the good. I felt like that happened this weekend for me."
A change of front forks, back to the same specification used in Australia, helped Brookes to make that progress. A return to the same throttle connection settings from Phillip Island also helped and gave Brookes something that he felt he "could dig my teeth into" in terms of making progress with the bike.
"In our debrief we went over a lot of the points that have opened so far over the year and I feel very good after what we talked about. A couple of 13th place finishes doesn't look very good but I genuinely believe that within our team we've gotten a lot of positive direction.
"The first couple of rounds were just gathering information and not fully knowing what to do with it whereas now it feels that we've actually found something that feels like a clear direction. It seems more clear to where need to go with the bike and there's some evidence to suggest the reason why it's good in this direction. We had tried these things before but we can now see that the reason it didn't work because of various situations."
Monza off the calendar
The Monza round was canceled over the course of the weekend and while the move had been expected it still brings a question mark over the season. An announcement of a replacement round, if there will be one, will be made before the end of this month.
Where and when that round will take place is now a major talking point in the paddock. Finding a venue, booking travel and hotels and finding a suitable date makes this a very tricky situation. Estoril has been touted as a replacement but having not hosted top tier motorcycle races since MotoGP left the circuit five years ago it’s difficult to see why it would be favored over Portimao.
Brno has always been a popular venue in MotoGP and has hosted WorldSBK rounds in the past but Karel Abraham Sr dismissed speculation linking him to hosting the race. A second round in Britain would be a solution with Silverstone a possibility but also an unlikely one.
With the clock ticking it’s now likely that the summer break will start after Laguna Seca and the replacement round could come prior to the German round.
Gathering the background information for long articles such as these is an expensive and time-consuming operation. If you enjoyed this article, please consider supporting MotoMatters.com. You can help by either taking out a subscription, buying the beautiful MotoMatters.com 2016 racing calendar, by making a donation, or by contributing via our GoFundMe page.